Web Exclusive: The Value of Great Servers

Chef Kelly Kwan

By Adam and Larry Mogelonsky

The onsite restaurant is a hallmark of nearly any great hotel, with customer sentiments towards the former entity reflecting back onto property reviews and, ultimately, guestroom bookings. Within the F&B silo, we glorify the cuisine, the beverage selection, the wine cellar, the decor, the location and the executive chef, but rarely do the servers get their moment in the spotlight. And yet, like a triage nurse who first attends to a desperately ill patient entering the emergency room and is the life-saving determinant ahead of any doctor’s intervention, server teams are the frontline for success in any hotel’s food-and-beverage (F&B) operation.

Their tone, their knowledge of the food and their devotion to the table’s every request all play a critical and highly emotionally-charged role in the customer’s overall sentiment towards the business. Great servers can compensate for any perceived deficiencies while, on the contrary, bad service is toxic to any restaurant no matter its cachet. In other words, as the human connection between place and party, your servers are make or break – an issue all the more prescient in today’s labour-challenged world where we need to retain our top talent in order to prevent any service slights.

During mid-September, it was exciting  to read the Michelin announcement for first-ever, star-rated restaurants in our hometown of Toronto. Of those, we immediately booked for Don Alfonso 1890, a fine- dining Italian establishment, already of much acclaim and given a star, located high up on the 38th floor in the Westin Harbour Castle with panoramas of the entire downtown skyline and Lake Ontario.

The food was bar-none incredible, but what really stood out was our server captain, Kelly Kwan, who was more than eager to share his insights into how his role and his attention to detail amplifies a dining experience. Watching him work was like having a front-row seat for a ballroom dancer gliding effortlessly between tables with a perfect memory of every dish and every wine. Within this brief interview are lessons for every hotelier on what makes for great service and what your managers can do to cultivate a great service culture which will halo back onto your guests and their meal satisfaction.

Adam and Larry Mogelonsky: Give us some background on your experience in hospitality.

Kelly Kwan: All of my earliest memories involved food. In my early childhood through until my adolescence, my parents owned a very successful Chinese-Canadian restaurant in the west end of Toronto. I remember waking up at dawn at the age of six and working tables. Of course, this early childhood experience laid the groundwork for what would unfold as a lifetime in the industry.

After a couple bussing jobs at the Fairmont Royal York from the age of 14 (I lied about my age in order to score the job), my first big break was as a waiter at the tender age of 18 at the Omni King Edward Hotel. Working directly under chef John Higgins, who had recently arrived from Buckingham Palace, he taught me over the course of seven years about the finer points of classic French service (at the time, in Chiaro’s Restaurant).

Soon after that, I was recruited to the front of house at Canoe (on the 54th floor of the Toronto Dominion Centre in downtown Toronto) where I worked for another seven years. Other postings include wine director for Susur Lee for eight years (having been accredited by WSET since 1996); head waiter at Centro Restaurant; time at Michaels on Simcoe (a prestigious steakhouse in downtown Toronto); and as lead front of house for ICONINK Entertainment Group then for Liberty Entertainment Group (the parent company for Don Alfonso 1890).

AM & LM: Beyond the cuisine and ambiance, what key factors distinguish Michelin-level service from other fine-dining establishments? What are some simple tips and tricks that other restaurants can implement to elevate their dining experiences to this point?

KK: Providing a seamlessly executed dining experience to a guest hinges on perfect timing (what some may define as ‘service à la française’). Timing in the greeting, timing in delivery and timing in all points of service throughout the entire guest stay must be thoughtfully curated. From the beginning through to the end, timing is key. From an internal restaurateur’s perspective, timing plays a key factor into the business of things. If calls are not properly timed, tables are not returned. Ripple effects then come into play, affecting both the guest experience and the livelihood of the business.

AM & LM: What is the server training process at Don Alfonso 1890?

KK: The training process at Don Alfonso 1890 and throughout all of the many venues at Liberty Entertainment Group is very lengthy. Focus from mentor to trainee is multifaceted. It is at once hands-on and rich in on-the-job observation as well as steeped in tutelage on aspects of service such as theory, execution of points of service, fluidity and knowledge. Repetition is key. Muscle memory is important. Most importantly, candidates in our company must be kind, motivated, and engrossingly interested in the food and wine.

AM & LM: It’s often remarked that the very best hospitality professionals can remember a table’s exact order with all substitutions instantly and without taking notes. Do you think there’s any credence to this?

KK: It’s of tantamount importance for a waiter or captain to write everything down. Since I’m old school, I believe that a waiter’s pad must be constantly updated and written legibly in non-cursive writing. The idea is that should I roll over dead from a heart attack mid-service, anyone can interpret my handwriting and follow through. Please note, however, any waiter worth their grain of salt should not have to, nor ever will, write down a round of aperitifs. If you can’t remember, separate the order input in waves.

AM & LM: Outside of raising wages, what can hotels and restaurants do to help keep teams motivated and retain staff?

KK: Hotels and restaurants need to provide a safe environment free from harassment to their workforce. Employees flourish in a culture that encourages friendly competition, open communication and accountability throughout the ranks. Competitive wages, sales incentives to all front-of-house staff and a balance of life and work for everyone.

AM & LM: From your perspective as the end user of restaurant technologies, what advice do you have for hotel executives and F&B directors evaluating new restaurant software?

KK: Up-to-date software allows wait staff to accurately input orders, communicate with the kitchen and prevent errors. It all boils down to dollars and cents. Efficiency in delivery, prevention of loss and theft, management of time and control of costs all depend on new technology. For the employee, these tools are key.

AM & LM: Any closing thoughts on how restaurants can augment the dining experience through better service and supporting their staff?

KK: Kitchen staff needs to operate under an accountable brigade system. Chefs need to know how to cost food and labour. Likewise, a strong structure must exist in the front-of-house as well as provide the best product to a client. In order to deliver a seamless and well-timed experience to the guest, the restaurant must divide its front-of-house staff accordingly. From the guest experience, receiving layers of service provided by an army of devoted lifetime professionals throughout their stay, either in a hotel or restaurant environment, or both is fundamental. From the chef d’ hotel, maître d’, director of wine, sommelier, captain or chef de service to the server, support staff, the food runner and so on, everyone must work diligently in congruence with each other.

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